Southern Summer Heat: An Existential Crisis


Today we experienced the first really really flesh-crawlingly hot day of the summer. I feel like the month of May starts off by tricking me into thinking I love the summer - the produce and the colors, the long evenings and the everything-blooming-or-green. And then. Oh then. So I wrote about the "then" in an effort to remind myself. I wonder: does anyone else become irrationally, out-of-control grouchy when the summer heat hits? Consider this the official frenemy-status with summertime you never even asked for...


In the South the sun has this way of screaming directly into your eyes no matter which direction you're driving. There is nothing for it but to agree that you are melting – and fast – into total obscurity. Your life never has and never will mean anything. You are a failure at whatever you're currently doing. You should scrap whatever plans you have and start over. Boring, chubby, commonplace, and insignificant. Literally anyone is cooler than you are. Even that possum lying dead on the side of the road is cooler than you are. Figuratively and literally. The temperature – like your temper – rises rapidly.
When I'm hot, everything in the world is wrong. Traffic is worse. I am probably ugly. I'm probably really really ugly and catastrophically awkward and all my friends are too nice to tell me. I bet I'll never find true love. Those people don't like me. My shoes don't fit. My socks don't match. The tag in my shirt itches. I'm late for literally everything. I should join a gym. I want to eat nothing but ice cream. I am more broke than I've ever been, probably. I want to buy a new outfit; all of my clothes make me hot.

You'd think that by now, after twenty-six years of living through Virginia's midsummer humidity I'd understand the game. But it isn't a game – set the temperature above ninety degrees and I am fully convinced I am moments from dying. Logic is a foreign concept. In truth, mortality has never seemed closer than those awful days when the smell of tar shimmers up from parched black roads and I'm stuck on a bridge tunnel in my tin can of a car. The physical sensation of being trapped begins to lock bars, one by one, over my scorching-hot chest. If there is no A/C, there is no rationale.

The immediate reaction to being overheated is a complete overthrow of all rational thought. I could have just experienced the absolute best morning but the second I step outside and my glasses fog up from the needy breath of the outdoors, it's a rapid spiral into emotional chaos. Everything – the cars, the trees, the arc of bleached blue sky humming above my head – is standing too close. I don't want anyone to lean close and that's all anything in the whole world is doing. My very skin hangs over my bones like seething, limp newspaper. Is it necessary to wear skin? Could I remove it just for a second, just to get cool?
Cool. What is cool? I dangle my arm outside the car window to try to catch a breeze. Even going sixty-five down the highway, it's hot. The faded red door brands the underside of my arm. Why is it this hot before nine in the morning? Without A/C, riding with the windows down is like standing beneath a laundromat dryer vent with a pitiable sense of expectation. I forget what it feels like to be anything but accursed of an insistent headache and a sense of my own depravity.

No matter what I touch, it sticks to me. My clothes, the leather seats, my hair, the smell of the truck drivers' cigarettes. Sweat pools in the small of my back and stings in my eyes. Whatever ideals I had about looking nice for the evening have vanished moments after eight AM. I will be lucky to have even the smallest trace of mascara left. A line of dispirited cars pulls in front of me on the highway. No one knows how to merge. The merry-go-round of despair whirls faster:
All my creative ideas are bad. I will never amount to anything. I will live at home forever. I will be single forever. My cat will probably die pretty soon. My eyes are too small. My hair is too brown and extremely flat. Is that a freckle or skin cancer?
My headache intensifies. Maybe I have diabetes. Maybe I have some other rare disease. I'm hungry. I'm thirsty. I'm so thirsty I could swim in a pool of Chick-Fil-A lemonade (with pellet ice, please). My tooth aches. I probably will keep getting cavities even though I floss every day. And if I get enough cavities I'll need crowns on all my teeth and since I can't afford that I will have to get dentures and no one can ever know and I'll have to change dentists every year because I'll never show my face there again and maybe when I run out of dentists I'll just have to leave the entire region and start somewhere new.

By now I'm a couple miles from work and the bridge is up and I'll definitely be late and there will be four people in the kitchen and the fridge will smell of fish and I'll probably discover something I forgot to order and my prep list will die a severe death at the hands of my own inability to compose an order list.
I should just not show up. I should go to the beach and plunge my panting, grasping, roasted-feeling body into the cold Atlantic Ocean and bob up and down like a fishing bobber until the panic fades. It would feel so good. I might remember how it feels to not be hot if I could do that. But I can't. I will show up to work and button myself into that horrible, glaring-white pastry jacket and spend the day opening the oven into my face and searing myself with steaming hot water and spatters of caramel and pulling trays from the oven with a damp rag which burns through within seconds. More heat. Always more heat. Always a dive deeper into the inferno and God if you would just send rain we might have a respite from ourselves and this heat.

I crunch into the parking lot. Bet the gravel will punch holes in my tires. Bet my car battery will boil to death in the sun. Bet my phone battery is already at half-mast and I forgot my charger. Bet Amazon Prime will auto-renew at the exact moment I ask for an extra shot in my iced latte. Bet I'll come back outside to find somebody dumb has backed into my car or maybe I'll get a parking ticket even though I parked in a place without any signs about permits only.

I drag my wilted self up the steps to work, feeling like a plant of the desert on the edge of extinction. Trembling keys in husk-dry hands, sunlight blaring like tuneless trumpets against my back. A bead of sweat courses from my neck down into my waistband and I am enraged.

And then the door gives way, and I stumble forward into dark wood and air conditioning. Sixty-eight degrees embraces me with liquid coolness.
I gasp, a traveler thrown onto a savior shore, and lean against the door, trapping summertime outdoors.
Slowly, slowly, but with certainty the air conditioning relieves me of this sense of doom.
I peel myself off the wainscoting.
Take stock of the time.
March into the kitchen and glug a pint of water straight out of a quart container. And as my heart-rate slows and the anxiety ebbs I am surprised to find...I'm repaired. This isn't the end of all things. I probably don't have a rare disease. I feel wonderful. I am restored to my former glory. I should have known – I should always know.

It wasn't an existential crisis...it was only the heat.

6 comments

  1. I'm not as coherent as you about heat. I like my seasons, but I prefer the "changing" ones, the milder ones, as long as there is a clear distinction. I'm liking summer or heat rather less and less as I get older although I used to run around playing in 90 degree weather.

    I have air conditioning now, but I did have a black (manual just to be extra) car that didn't, and I'd have a sweater back (in my cute clothes of course) by the time I got to work. Too warm weather in or out equals aggravated for me. And yet, I don't want to change my geographic area by too great a degree or lose any seasons.

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    Replies
    1. This is fair! I am happy to also live in a "temperate" climate that gets all four seasons. Thank God for air con!

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  2. I relate to this so much! I'm not one for heat. Fall is my season.

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    Replies
    1. Fall is the best! I love summer EVENINGS though. I will admit that.

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