There's something faintly aberrant about hating summer. Something vaguely un-American, unsporting, unfriendly. Something almost Scrooge-like.
I know this. I have tried to change. But every year I see the signs, feel the dread. It begins again as an allergy does, a tickle, a twinge, a dim hope that somehow maybe I won't have it this year and then -- no escape, there it is.
For me it begins when the air takes on a certain sweet damp clinginess, when the screens and the Carry Cools go into the windows, when plastic porch appear in the drugstore, and Bain de Soleil and Bug Lites and Bar-B-Q Briketts jump into prominence at the checkout counter rack. Full bloom comes when familiar commercial items turn up suddenly unfamiliar, suddenly inflatable, floatable, portable, collapsible, sun-pruf, bug-pruf, wet-pruf, sunsetized or, as a People's clerk told me with a certain dignity, "pure Styrofoam."
By July the covers of magazines are plunging toward you, models' faces breaking water with bright smiles and pool-proof mascara and mermaid hair. That woman on the cover clearly has no fear of rocketing up out of the sea missing the top of her bathing suit. That woman's eyes are not sensitive to the presence of chlorine or urine in the water and her mind does not make irrational connections with Jaws when something unidentifiable swims by and brushes her leg. Nope. That woman can run a mile on sand. Change gracefully inside a bath towel. Make fettuccine alfredo over open coals. Read with comprehension in the sun. Catch the Frisbee. Down the fries. Tan, not burn.
Unlike me she does not hate summer. It's probably her daughter's name.
I have stopped resenting her, have learned to admire her. She is another species entirely, a glistening nymph I'll never be.
I will never be your peppy, ever-ready summertime waterbaby. I'd try, but you'd laugh. All summer my back sticks to the car seat. My hair gives me the appearance of a person who has just inserted her finger into an electric outlet. Makeup melts on my face and in my purse. A head of Boston lettuce dies quietly in a Safeway paper bag while I mail a letter. I notice things in summer that disturb me: Mold appears. Mildew threatens. The shower curtain looks suspicious. The ladies' room of a spizzy French restaurant has taken on the air of girls' gym class.
We are asked to eat ridiculous food, in ridiculous ways. To deal with an ear of corn the way an electric typewriter deals with paper. To pummel, crack, pound, peel, excise meat from crustaceans. Most summer fare defeats me or gets caught in my teeth or its melted butter runs down my chin.
Summer drinks are no better. Why are there no autumn drinks? Would anyone consider floating a maple leaf in a mug of cider the way gardenias and carnations and, failing that paper parasols, are floated in rum drinks?
I find myself shouting to be heard above the whir of air-conditioners, and at night on my street the houses, with all systems go, seem to be snoring. GE air-conditioners make a mouth-open snore, Westinghouse does a more nasal sound, casement units drool.
Libraries close and reopen at eccentric hours. "Summer hours." As do certain shops, galleries and tennis courts. Friends with boats vanish until September. Therapists vacation in August, leaving God knows what kinds of emotional holding patterns behind. Peculair word usage appears: A lot of interest in "light reading," "light dinners," "light movies, plays, music," "light gatherings, conversations," as if the oppressiveness of this season must be alleviated however possible. A little light sex, perhaps. A light set of tennis. Some light summer sermons, Father, if you will.
I spent many childhood summers in New England by a lake in the White Mountains, and there I liked summer. There I never felt groggy from the heat or wrung-out from the humidity. There I felt crisp, and the world seemed not hazed but clarified, and now I see why.
That wasn't summer by my definition. Up there near North Conway; New Hampshire, there was no summer. There was what one might consider a mild fall, except for two or three days toward the end of July. That's why I loved it: I could go up there with my duffel bag and trunk and navy- blue shorts and miss summer completely. I could pass from urban June to a balmy rural autumn, come back in time to go to school and have another autumn, urban that time.
There were other summers, before and after the New England summers, that gave me a feeling of being at loose ends. I talked with another summer-hater recently and she had experienced the same thing. "We just kind of ran around loose," she said. "In the water, outta the water, in the sand, outta the sand, down to the store for a Pepsi, back and forth, sorta aimless. I could tell my mother was bored. After four, five summers building sand castles and changing from wet to dry swimsuits in and outta the water I was bored. I had a feeling we were all killing time till school started again."
Another summer-hater, whom I unearthed with some difficulty because he felt it "isn't nice to spoil something like that for kids," finally said, "It's the sand that gets to me. That compulsion to go to the beach. It's not summer if you don't see water and sand. That sand. I mean it's still in the Volvo from last summer, it gets in your pajamas, in your hair, under your nails, it gets in between the pages of books and in the bag of Fritos and in the bite you take out of a fried clam sandwich, it gets in everything and it never ever gets completely out."
What's wrong with us?
Hey. This is supposed to be fun.
Maybe it's the feeling of forced fun that does it to me. Because it's sunny you better be happy and have a good time. An editor I know thinks of it this way: "Summer makes you do things. It makes you feel guilty if you're not splashing around and beering it up on the beach. Summer equals happy. The American dream. The guy and the girl with the sun- streaked hair running on the beach is the big damn dream, and if you're not part of it, baby, there's something wrong with you. And no one wants to feel there's something wrong with her."
Right. I do not want to feel that I have just walked into a Tennessee Williams play and there is no way to get off the set. That's how I feel sometimes in July and August, when the trees are too lush and the wooden front door step seems to be decomposing and at night it doesn't cool off, when the light from the street lamps leaks out onto the too-lush, too-glossy leaves, turning them the green of nightmare, and the humid stillness hangs over the city, the street, the doorstep, and the darkness is thick, dense with heat, and I hear in the drone of air-conditioners and insects a sense of decay, of letting go, of not caring anymore, an acceptance of slow ruin.
The last time I saw that nightmare green flaring on the leaves by my doorstep an empty bottle was rolling down the empty street very slowly, ta-tink, taaaa-tink. If my house had a front porch there would have been an iguana under it that night.
Here is what I did. I put my key in the lock and went into my house. I walked through the living room, snapped on the air-conditioner but no lights, went directly upstairs to my workroom where I snapped on another air-conditioner and a lamp, plucked "The Great Gatsby" out of a bookshelf and read out loud in the hushed, hot house: "'Don't be morbid,' Jordan said. 'Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall. ' "
Until fall I have a system. I try to locate myself in air-conditioned rooms. I tell myself that this is severe weather, just as a snowstorm is, and one must stay indoors. I am not obligated to run around and have fun in a snowstorm, so I am not obligated to run around and romp in the heat-humidity-pollution inversion. I go to air-conditioned movies. I work hard, as if snow-bound into it. I avoid eating dinner on sidewalks even where there are tables and chairs. If I can afford it I go for a vacation where it very definitely will be cool.
And I think about that change, that crack, almost visible in the air, when the seasons shift. That first day when you feel a whisk of autumn. That day when it seems the city's fever has broken and the sky is clear and the air is tart. I like to think about Back-to-School signs in the stores, and the smell of new books just crackling open, and wools, and apples, spiral notebooks and Halloween coming, and taking the Carry Cools out of the windows so I can look out.
It's about this time that I always like to go to the beach.