The first touch to the steering wheel stung. Feet stuck to sandals and shirts to backs.

The season's inaugural hot spell made a sudden entrance this week. It wasn't really unusually warm. But after a brisk May, the 14th-coolest on record, the difference to many in the Washington area seemed striking.

"Monday was a shocker. You weren't expecting all that heat at once," said Johnnise Etheredge of Indian Head, who is 41/2 months pregnant and advised water, not soda, to endure.

Temperatures crept into the 90s Monday for the first time this year, and then again yesterday, weather forecasters said. The "Bermuda high" -- the summertime weather system that pumps humid air into the mid-Atlantic -- is projected to continue cooking the region in mid-to-upper-80s temperatures the next seven days before the weather cools.

"It's kind of ironic that people are complaining that it's too hot. Last week, it was too cold and everyone was complaining," said Michael Halpert, head of forecast operations at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs.

"There is no 'just right,' is there?"

Shaded by a wide, white umbrella at the La Plata farmers market yesterday, Tina Eaton said she had hoped to postpone summer for two more weeks, long enough to salvage her romaine and bibb lettuce crops, which become bitter as the temperature rises.

The drastic shift from May to June had a more melancholy effect on Eaton's 18-year-old son, Marshal, who was raising 90 broiler chickens for his 4-H club. When he returned home from work Monday night, he discovered that a third of his chickens had died of heat exhaustion.

"He's very depressed," she said.

In Gambrills, Arundel High School will let out two hours early today and tomorrow because the three-story building does not have air conditioning. At Eastham's Exxon Service Center in Bethesda, 15 people brought in cars with broken air conditioners yesterday. Just one customer had stopped in with an AC complaint all last week.

Fewer complaints came from area residents who were close to the water. On the Port Tobacco River in Charles County, four business consultants had traded their Ashburn office for a 21-foot powerboat and planned to spend the afternoon anchored with a cooler of beer.

"You expect this kind of heat," said Scott Burroughs, 29, just before his friend Jason Dunn of Reston shoved away from the dock. "I welcome it."

A few miles away on Route 6, former Marine Cpl. Ryan Turner, 21, tanned by his family's swimming pool. "I'm very happy," he said. Recalling the two months he spent in 110-degree heat in the Kuwait desert, he asked, "Why is everyone freaking out?"

Perhaps it's because May averaged a cool 61.9 degrees, compared with 71.8 degrees last year and an overall average of 65.6 degrees. The chilliest May on record was an average 59.2 degrees, in 1882 and 1907.

The contrast came when the heat kicked in this week in a slightly stickier way than usual. For June, the high is typically 83.9 degrees, with an average temperature of 74.5 degrees. The thermometer recorded 92 degrees at Dulles International Airport on Monday and 89 degrees Tuesday. A high of 90 degrees was recorded yesterday at Reagan National Airport and 91 at Dulles.

"People are a little bit shocked because it's such a dramatic change," said Maryland's state climatologist, Kenneth Pickering.

Weather watchers do not yet have strong signals about what to expect for the summer. Instead, they are predicting what is known as "equal chances," meaning it could be warm or it could be cool.

"We just don't know for this area," Halpert said.

For people laboring outside, repairing sewer lines, mowing grass and patching asphalt, the arrival of summer is always an adjustment -- no matter when or how it happens.

Dressed in dusty canvas pants, work boots and gloves, Joey Garner lugged a 40-pound bag of concrete to plant new street signs in a subdivision of half-million-dollar homes in Charles County. The trees were too small to provide shade on the unforgiving asphalt, so Garner's glasses slid from his nose as he hunched over a two-foot ditch.

"It takes a lot out of you," said his brother, Jeff Garner, assistant public works director in La Plata.

John Styer of Calder's Cart offers cooling shaved ice to Jared Glickfield, 3, of Bethesda.Will Josephs, 9, dives into a shaved ice treat in Bethesda on a blistering day when the airport highs were 90 at Reagan National and 91 at Dulles International.