I was on a ferry the other day, watching the ocean froth and fold, churning under the motor as it passed, and I thought about how summer is somehow always the same, and somehow always different. There are always sandcastles, cookouts, bonfires, humidity and pruny fingers after staying in the water too long. But these constants form a backdrop to the dog days; the meaning of it all changes as you grow older.

When you’re 7 years old, summer lasts forever. I remember the days would stretch and stretch, and the sun remained high in the sky, as if to accommodate that one final game of one-on-one mom granted us before having to wash up for the night. But still, we kept going, long after the sun sank and the streetlights kicked on, because the only things that could drag us inside were the threat of an early bedtime or the promise of ice cream.

The months got longer, and by mid-July it felt as though school would never be back in session. My parents tired of our running in and out of the house and would say, “You need to pick one or the other.” So we chose the backyard and the water balloon wars, Slip ‘N Slide sessions and rollerblade races persisted until our cheeks were pink and fatigue finally set in.

By the end of August I knew that the best hiding spot for our neighborhoodwide game of capture the flag was in the middle of the thorny rose bush on the side of our house; only the bravest among our adversaries would risk the pain and blood for victory. I exhausted my secret stash of quarters and rare dollar bills on giant cherry popsicles from the corner store down the street. I captured a colony of fireflies and scratched my mosquito-bitten skin until it was red and raw. And by the end of it all, after taking advantage of every morsel of sunshine that beat down on central Illinois, I was ready — excited, even — to go back to school.

At 13, summer was transformative. There was great promise, it seemed, in those three magical months that were before me. There was time to blossom and grow into a new body and personality — one that would be a winner by the time I hit the halls again in the fall. I thought everything would be different once I were sun-kissed and 5 pounds lighter.

And I could see things change, little by little. There were now politics involved in get-togethers with friends. Suddenly, no one wanted to invite Sarah to the pool, and I agreed, Sarah was no longer cool. And I found myself pulling at my bathing suit, sucking in my stomach, pushing out my chest, keeping watch on the other girls in their little bikinis, hoping I looked good in mine.

Boys I’d known since kindergarten looked different now. They looked at me differently, too. Every interaction with the opposite sex was parsed for meaning: a push into the pool, a lingering smile, hands brushing together as we walked — accidental or premeditated? Sometimes hands would find their way together — fingers laced. It would feel exhilarating, and terrifying, and as though I was on the brink of that moment of transformation.

But when I walked back into school that fall, I was surprised that everything, and nothing, had changed.

At 17, summer was freedom. Finally, I was on my own time. I slept until noon. I broke curfew. I drove around with the windows down, pop punk pulsing through the speakers and my veins, letting my hair blow in the wind. I walked around wearing a facade of coolness, as though I were bored by everything other than my friends, lying by the pool and who was hosting the next party.

Days were spent attempting to stay cool: swimming in the lake, seeking refuge in mall’s air conditioning, slurping down snow cones at Ice Deli. But those summer nights, they always felt a little dangerous. We hung out in the park after hours, sipping on hard lemonade or cheap vodka, lying in the grass, looking up at the stars and talking about what life would be like when we were really free.

At 21, summer feels like the beginning of the end. It’s one last summer, and two more semesters, until the real world beckons and college is just another something you remember. Time moves faster with each passing day and I could feel my grains of sand piling up. Afternoons after work, you could find me in the quad, swinging listlessly from a hammock or throwing around a frisbee. I read book after book, looking for meaning and something I might be missing. At night we would stay up way too late, drink way too much, and hold on to one another as we walked home, stumbling and singing — picking up an ill-advised pizza along the way. I’d wake up in the morning, not only with a headache, but with that sad, Sunday feeling.

For once, I didn’t know what came next.

Now, in my first two years of post-graduate life, I’ve found summer no longer brings a swell of expectation or independence — but it offers an escape.

It’s an escape from the routine of eight-hour work days and student loan payments. It’s a reward for making my rent on time and putting money in my savings. It’s recompense for starting a 401(k) and planning for the future. For all of this, I can take a few weekends, head to the coast, drop my worries and dangle my feet in the water; crack open a beer and breathe in the smell of sweat and freshly cut grass; chat with friends over a crackling fire. I can close my eyes on that ferry and just enjoy the ride.

Emily Higginbotham, originally from Illinois, is a copy editor at the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. You can follow her on Twitter: @EmilyHigg. Or reach her by email: [email protected]