The Late Bloomers: Mourning The Summer Internship
A fiction story about Benny and LouLou — two summer interns — and the nostalgic, shared experience that intertwines them.
By Ila Kumar
Everything Your Mother Doesn't Know is a monthly meditation on growing up. Stories in this column speak to the way adolescence, despite its ephemeral nature, is full of enduring/interesting lessons.
At my age, there’s life, and then there’s summer. When the nine-month-long cycle of papers and coming home for dinner ends, it’s time to bliss out on sunshine, waffle cones, and images of lighthouses in the distance. Summer is supposed to be life-changing but carefree, relaxing, yet fulfilling. And like most components of adolescence, it’s about expectations. Ira Glass—vocally averse to the season—once described summer on his radio show as “a three-month long prom date where you are supposed to have a good time, but no one ever does.” I’m nineteen now. Reliable structures like summer camp and obligatory family vacations are over; summer extends before me like a slow, stretchy question mark. Landing an internship is a big part of that.
They had written so many applications and exaggerated in so many ways to get these internships that the deceptions and embellishments regarding their outward presentations to the world felt normal, even encouraged. It changed their insides, too. They weren’t just lying to others. They were lying to themselves.
That was one part of the internship’s paradoxical nature. The position represents a “curious blend of privilege and exploitation,” as Ross Perlin describes in Intern Nation. Even now, internships are paid poorly, or labor is exchanged for college credit. The work is menial, but that’s not the point. As Perlin writes, an internship “sends out a more targeted social signal than ‘temp’ or ‘freelancer.’” Internships are just one of many forms of nonstandard labor practiced in this country, but unlike other jobs, they are “a status hopefully vaulted over as rapidly as possible.” Internships are not just the ability to afford to work for nothing, it’s the privilege of impermanence and time—room to change.
That morning, they were heading into their various offices: Benny at the law firm, Loulou at the fashion house. They were going to be seniors in college, and the decay of parental protection as a function of borrowed time and anxiety was something they all felt.
Outside was hot and bright. They scurried into large glass buildings with lots of air conditioning. At first, Benny had been surprised by how quiet the office was. It wasn’t a contemplative, serious silence but an unsettling hush that was shattered by audible fear breaking inside his stomach and groin each day. The hours were long. Benny felt overwhelmed and unsure of his work. Jerry, his supervisor, was already sitting at his designated plot of wood veneer, filing his nails. So, Benny thought, not a lot seemed to be happening, but as they say on airplanes, oxygen is flowing even if the bag does not seem to inflate. He looked to sit down and saw a pale yellow Post-it Note. In bland, feminine handwriting, a note asked him to pick up flowers around the corner. It was for a client.
Finally, a task. That was what Loulou thought when Cal, her coworker, who, if you read the blogs in the 2010s, you’ll remember, distinguished himself with all those great articles about Chanel Métier d’Art shows, ponchos, and making transition lenses cool, asked her to get some fresh flowers for the office. The company was recovering from a controversy involving endangered animals and chopsticks. Scandal, much like death, is a dignitary who, when she comes is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, Cal told her as he handed her the chrome company card.
Everything was spotless, float glass, business-casual, and boring. It was hard not to think about how things would have been if she had stayed home for the summer and let her older sister teach her how to bartend at Cafe Kenny. She would have been the subject of subjects at the cafe—worrying about serving old teachers and middle school bullies, then feeling discreetly gratified by the opportunity to tell Mrs. Nussbickel about her major, to be sure Rowan from eighth grade knew the letter on her bra tag was no longer 'A'.
After her shift, it would happen again—she could call her high school girlfriend over, use their storied history, and shared rolodex of hometown characters as a container to pour the day’s gossip into. They could take comfort in each other in a second way too, be witness once more to each other’s growth and advancement in technique. She wanted someone to find stimuli in her everyday life. One day in this city aged her five years, and having one person to see it all would be no small thing. Hopeful about her new mission, Loulou glided out of the office and onto the street, her energized body going about its adult work.
Benny arrived at the florist. The short walk made him sweat. He had been looking forward to the pressurized swish of the door to the refrigerated flowers, but once inside, he realized he didn’t know what to look for. Aside from the woman behind the counter, they were alone. Purchasing flowers was an activity complemented by moonlight, something adults did at night when they really loved each other. But that Tuesday, the air was milky and the sun radiant, peeking through waxy houseplants. There was green everywhere. Petals of pink hibiscus and red begonias provided accents of color, but it wasn’t just that; lace ferns and silver dollar eucalyptus, succulents, and Indian basket grass gave the place a textured dimension as if prosecco had been doused over the plants to achieve such spirit, like the landscape had an erection. Someone next door was playing the accordion.
It wasn’t her blonde hair that caught his eye. It wasn’t the fact that he didn’t know the nomenclature of her clothing or that he couldn’t put his finger on what holy forest or Mediterranean journey her perfume came from. It certainly wasn’t the inviting manner in which she leaned against the refrigerator. It was simpler than that. Benny had doubted, for a while now, that women actually touched flowers as often and affectionately as paintings suggested they did, but her careful consideration of each bouquet—and more impressively—her swift rejection of each one had him rethinking everything.
Loulou wondered under what circumstances two non-adults were selecting such conspicuous blooms on a late Tuesday morning. He hadn’t thought of things like that. The tiled floor was mossed here and there with dirt, some of which had ended up on Loulou’s white socks. He grabbed a paper cone of dahlias and stepped closer to her. It occurred to him that even now, even as it climbed towards 100 outside, he had a choice. He would think of a charming way to tell her about her dirty socks.
The summer was halfway over, his only memories of it regarding the paraphernalia of cosplaying adulthood: work, his boss, his ugly tie. Maybe things were not as doomed as they seemed. He could say something brave and unlawerly. Benny’s summer, and frankly, his life, was barreling in a direction that could be changed by one remark. He might ask why she was wearing delicate, frilly, knee-high socks on such a hot day.
Loulou wondered under what circumstances two non-adults were selecting such conspicuous blooms on a late Tuesday morning. He hadn’t thought of things like that. The tiled floor was mossed here and there with dirt, some of which had ended up on Loulou’s white socks. He grabbed a paper cone of dahlias and stepped closer to her. It occurred to him that even now, even as it climbed towards 100 outside, he had a choice. He would think of a charming way to tell her about her dirty socks. The summer was halfway over, his only memories of it regarding the paraphernalia of cosplaying adulthood: work, his boss, his ugly tie.
Maybe things were not as doomed as they seemed. He could say something brave and unlawerly. Benny’s summer, and frankly, his life, was barrelling in a direction that could be changed by one remark. He might ask why she was wearing delicate, frilly, knee-high socks on such a hot day.
High noon. The store glowed with an ephemeride hopefulness. Loulou had found a couple stems she liked—baby’s breath on the outside, protea in the center. She turned to bring them to the counter when she noticed a pair of ugly dress shoes heading straight for her white shins, which, by the way, were covered in dirt. Benny had tripped, first into Loulou, then into a sumptuous display of something purple.
Benny spun on the floor, first to the right, then left. His frantic arms banged around Loulou’s head a few times, cloaking her hair in a veil of leaves. As they sat up, a flurry of petals fell from their backs. The lady behind the corner ran over. What happened? She asked. Then, you’re bleeding, she said.
Had you been passing by the flower shop on Bowery that morning, perhaps on an intern-errand yourself, you might have seen them sitting on the floor. From a distance, you might have thought they were cute kids playing in the leaves and dirt. But as you came close, you would have noticed the boy’s shoes were a men’s 11, and the dragonfly tattoo below the girl’s knee. You might have even seen the scratches on the man’s face, the way he tried to blot his wounds with the dying head of a hydrangea. You probably saw the thorny stems caught in the woman’s hair. She may have thrown you a regal, homecoming glance. You might have asked yourself, “What is going on here?”
They reached out for the broken dahlias. Wrecked flowers were everywhere, but many had come to rest in the space between them. They picked one up, then another, then another ruined flower. Loulou and Benny were children. They had felt it all summer. The menial tasks at work, the way the city made them feel small, the excruciating, impending fear of regression. In spite of this, in spite of everything, they still craved being young again. They were two children cleaning up their mess, caught in the humiliation of growing up. They started to talk. Then they grew up, and old.