Welcome back.

No, we don't really mean it. We're just being polite. In reality, we couldn't wait for you to leave Washington on your summer vacation, and frankly, we're a little sad you decided to return.

You see, while you were sipping Coronas on the Outer Banks or eating lobster rolls on Cape Cod, we were seeing a side of the city that emerges for a only few weeks each summer, like a delicate flower that blooms but fleetingly. It was made more somber, less carefree, this year than many a summer's end by the terrible news from the Gulf Coast and the death of the chief justice.

But still, with school out and Congress gone, we cruised to work on snarl-free streets. We enjoyed spur-of-the-moment meals at popular eateries. We got our favorite treadmill at the health club.

We wandered through a city where hustle-bustle had been replaced by easy-peasy. And even though you and your fellow vacationers have been dribbling back into town for days, and school buses started ruining our reverie last week, we still cling to our fond memories of a big town transformed into a small town.

In other words, don't feel sorry for us because we were stuck in Washington in the dog days of summer. Envy us.

Envy people like Lily Engle, a real estate lawyer who lives in Alexandria. "I'd much rather take my vacation in May or September -- any month other than August," she said. "It's great. You can decide at the last minute to go to the movies on a Friday night and they won't be sold out. There's just a sleepy, old southern town feeling, when everyone isn't so hyper."

Engle first noticed it in mid-August. The 25-minutes-on-a-good-day commute she and her husband make from Landmark to Old Town Alexandria was cut in half. "A miracle," she called it.

But that isn't what made the strongest impression. One afternoon -- on a day seemingly like any other -- Engle left her office to run a few errands. There was something different, though, something odd, something she couldn't quite put her finger on.

"Then it hit me," she said. "I felt like I was in some horror movie. There was no one on the street. Normally at lunch, the sidewalks are full. . . . There was no one."

She walked, slightly weirded out, into the King Street branch of Burke & Herbert Bank & Trust, where, in true zombies-have-eaten-everyone-and-I'm-the-last-surviving-human fashion, she was the only customer.

"I've never been in there when there was no one else in line at all," said Engle, 34. "All the tellers were just talking to one another because there was nothing else to do."

No waiting at the bank. Or at Salon Daniel, a hairdresser in McLean, where things got so slow last month that the stylists had time to do each other's hair.

"Everybody's out of town," Salon Daniel's Telisha Allison explained last month. "We've had a couple of people who called at the last minute, and they were surprised they could get an appointment. You can also get good dinner reservations this time of year."

Or you may not need reservations at all. District resident Elizabeth Roach and her boyfriend are accustomed to waiting an hour or more to get a table at Logan Tavern on P Street NW, which doesn't take reservations for small parties.

"We went in a couple of weeks ago, there was no wait," said Roach, 24, who works for a health care research group. "We got there at 8 o'clock -- the busiest time -- and we were able to sit down."

In August, the natural rhythms are reversed. You can get a midweek reservation at the Palm, but not at Espuma, the hottest restaurant in Rehoboth Beach.

"It could not possibly be any busier," Espuma owner Jay Caputo said over the telephone a week and a half ago. "I can't take any more reservations tonight. We're totally full."

Parking? Forget about it. "There is no parking at all. People come up and say, 'Where do we park?' You've got to park just like the rest of us: on the street. And so it really is just as dynamic as it possibly could be right now. The last three weeks have just been out of control."

He means that in a good way. Sort of.

"It's funny, because I'm sure businesses in D.C. can't wait for people to come back and for business to pick up," Caputo said. "At the end of the summer, everyone here can't wait for things to settle down a bit. It really is a tale of two cities."

And the city of Washington seemed especially pleasant this August. The weather started out hot and humid but then mellowed, rewarding those of us who had the foresight to stick around. There was even a week there -- Aug. 22 through 28 -- where it didn't rise above 87 degrees, where the average daily temperatures were in the mid-70s. Why, it got down to 62 degrees Aug. 25.

That was the week that Timothy Hartung gave a reporter a tour of the decidedly un-crowded Fitness First health club on Rockville Pike.

"You do get your pick of any machine, as opposed to in September or October, when it's really crowded," said Hartung, 28.

He gestured toward the ab room.

"Nobody is doing abs now," he said. A machine called the Butt Blaster was empty. On this lazy August day, there were no butts to blast.

"During the school year, oh my God, this place is crowded on a Monday through Friday basis," said Hartung's co-worker, Heather Bradburn, 23. "And as you can see, it's not very crowded now. Everybody is on vacation."

Virginia Dickensheets, another Fitness First employee, said she's been making it into work from Gaithersburg in 20 minutes.

"When school starts, it'll be 45 minutes to an hour . . . ," said Dickensheets, 45. "I'm dreading the next two weeks to a month. Road rage begins in September."

Joan Morris, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation, has another term for the rude awakening that comes at summer's end.

"There's something that a lot of people refer to as 'Terrible Tuesday,' " Morris said. "It's the day after Labor Day, when everybody's back from the beach and all the school buses are back on the roads. It all comes back to you. Even though there are many mornings during July and August when you don't feel like you're getting much of a traffic break, when Terrible Tuesday gets here, you feel it."

Today is Terrible Tuesday. Do you feel it?

Ah, well. Nothing lasts forever. Welcome back.

The summer flight from the city left many rewards for those who remained, including open parking spaces occasionally on K Street.