A Suburban Summer

There’s probably something to be said in favour of suburban domesticity.

As far as most are concerned it’s the cul de sac at life’s end, a burrow or borehole from which it’s difficult to escape. It means neighbours you neither know nor like, little snots on scooters and cycles, their voices piping, their tiny ticking minds forever engaged in mischief. It means lawn sprinklers and Sundays at the allotment, and buying bird feeders because, well, they’re not going to feed themselves, are they?

And it has a bad rep. The cooking, the cleaning, the floury hands Fairy Liquid raw beneath a dusting of glutinous white. The toys strewn on carpets hoovered only yesterday–how did they get dirty so fast? Collapsing on the couch after a long day maintaining balance in an uncaring home. Watching watercooler TV in the knowledge there will be no cooler around which to discuss your shows, only Internet forums pressed between grocery shopping and casserole preparation. Transporting kids to sports clubs, the beach, the playpark and back. You develop odd ways, unique to your family. You all sing the same songs in the car, together, in a pitch of your own devising, and hope you might find another familial unit whose harmony will compliment yours. Nobody wants to be the odd bunch on the block, shunned at suburban events, gossiped about, avoided.

And as intrinsic to the domestic experience as they are, none of these things are exactly ringing endorsements. However, I’d still quite like to be a house husband; let’s face it, I’m not good for much else.

I can cook and clean, and am frequently up to my elbows in some cake batter or another. I’m the only person in this house with an interest in cleaning it. I’ll pick up the vacuum, and tend to the sink, and when shopping, pick up Toilet Duck (or some version thereof) with a view to bleaching the bog. Toilets develop unsightly tide marks if left unwashed. If I can eradicate those with a squeeze of cleaning fluid once every fortnight, why wouldn’t I? I’m not saying our toilets should be clean enough to eat out of, but they should at least be clean enough to sit upon. That’s what separates the basin at home from public urinals, right?

There’s also something to be said for taking a breezy stroll about the suburb. Twilight, that dim sliver between night and day, when the sky still seems bright but the shadowed sidewalk says otherwise, is my favourite time to walk there and back again. The route’s a little more strenuous in summer, when mosquitos view my arms as an open bar and leathery crooked men sit on stoops wondering why the pale wonder in the Sennheisers keeps cruising past their property.

For the past three days squadrons of dragonflies so large they blot the waning sun have kept my pace up, zipping in geometric designs overhead with a sound like zeppellin motors. I rather fear what would happen if they dip too low and crash into my torso: I’d fall like the north tower.

Likewise, those fireflies, so unaccustomed to a boy from drizzly Plymouth, might be enchanting from a distance, but up close they’re whiskery clouds of bug parts best avoided. I love your bioluminescence, little buddies, but the thought of one of you landing on my face fills me with dread.

But there are wild rabbits that only turn tail when I’m inches away, and lingering trails of hickory smoke from spent barbecues that cause my nostrils to flare and my mouth to water, and even the kids shrieking in backyard pools aren’t so annoying when acting as backbeat for whatever mix I have on my iPod. The heat could be a little cooler, and the bugs could bite a little less, but even in our currently muggy storm climate, it’s still pleasant out.

I’m used to a more pastoral existence than this. For many years I woke to rolling farmland and the distant bleats of livestock. Though my current location is far from a concrete nightmare, New Jersey is strapped by major roads and airways; forever in the air is the rumbling hum of the turnpike, and of commercial jets spiralling toward Newark International.

But farms, neater and less wild than those back home, sideboard the endless blacktop, selling squash or white corn or pick-your-own-berries in a twisted reflection of the Devonshire fruit farms I was raised near. In the direction away from Shoprite and the ubiquitous Dunkin Donuts red-shouldered farmhands in dungarees, straw hats and little else drive tractors up and down fields, stalling traffic when crossing the thoroughfaire from one crop to another, smoking–always smoking–and soaking up the rays of an all-American sun.

And those supermarkets nearer civilisation sell summer faire–pies and watermelon–and orthodox Jewish women in long, dark dresses stand out, sweltering even in the ice cream aisle. Seasonal food is big here; Jersey has a seasonal culture I never encountered back home. The suburbs were built to cater to extreme swings of temperature, and while snow ploughs stand dormant at the roadside, sprinklers pop their heads from underlawn, and water, skittish, before being frightened back below. Billboards and home-scrawled signs advertise festivals, children’s day camps, and yard sales, and families flock to water playgrounds and bask in their fine, cool mists.

When summer storms come we retreat to the gazebo. Improbable hail dimples the pool’s waters; somewhere a power line goes down, falling across a road like an untied sneaker and we wonder how long it’ll take for the electricity to come back, and should we eat all the Ben & Jerry’s in case it doesn’t.

It isn’t adventurous, but it’s so nice. Bordering on twee, it’s spongecake and maypole dancing, American style. Lemonade isn’t pumped from a nozzle in a pub garden but squeezed fresh and mixed with sugar according to taste. Barbecues don’t sizzle with split sausages, but smoke slowly, glowering with the promise of pulled pork and crusted brisket. Lawns are cared for like favoured children. Doorsteps double as porch furniture.

And I wonder, baking and strolling and sweeping dry fir needles from the deck: who wouldn’t want this? For if these are the doldrums at life’s stagnant end, it’s an end truly worth reaching.

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One Response to A Suburban Summer

  1. LineyD says:

    Beautifully evocative and sums up my whole feeling for wanting to live in America. Suburbs in the UK just aren’t quite the same, much as I am enjoying village life.

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