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Against all reason and fairness and good sense, it’s August now. July is impossible, and more impossible when it’s over. I love summer, or maybe I hate it. I can’t figure out which one, and I can’t figure out how to live within it. What I love about it isn’t just an idea; it’s the wet-hearted reality of it, the permissive green days, even the humidity that settles down on the air like a blanket, making everyone’s skin feel more like skin than usual, making our bodies heavy and unavoidable. These are the same reasons I hate it, too, the same reasons that by the time July is over, the whole thing has become unbearable, a bad joke.
There was an article I loved early this year about “bad winter,” the portion of the cold new year stretching glumly and occasion-less-ly forward after the holidays. Mid-July to Mid-August is bad summer. The school’s-out, running-free plans from June have stagnated or dissolved, burning off in the humidity, sweating out into nothing. We are habituated to any new routines we have managed to enact. Summer is no longer a novelty. The heat and the humidity, the weight of our skin, the water of it, feels permanent. It is no longer new or exciting to go outside in shorts, to feel air on our shoulders. We have started thinking longingly about sweaters, and boots, and layers. Summer at its best, right at the beginning, is a vivid present tense. By the time bad summer sets in, we are reaching for the future again.
Early summer is about potential; bad summer is about waste, about lost time and regret, what we have already used up, what we cannot get back. The things that once seemed infinite and forgiving are in fact ruthlessly finite. The school year will start again in less than a month, and we will do this all over again, the same hopes, the same waiting, the same plans. There is no reason to believe that this year’s ambitions will work out better than last year’s, that time will be less wasted, or will go by less quickly, that anything is likely to matter more, or to become less of a blur. The air conditioner whirrs steadily and drowns out other noise.
I make poor choices at this time of year; maybe some of you do, too. I make the kind of poor choices people make when we are bored, the sort of let’s-see-what-this-looks-like-on-fire minor sabotages that itch at my hands on the days when everything feels too slow and too fast at once, the small “why not” messes of not caring, not taking care. That’s the thing about bad summer: You need to do the next thing already, you have been here too long, you are idling in the car outside of a door where someone is late and you are double-parked, you were supposed to have left already. This time of years feels dangerously like nothing counts, as though in the middle of a road the road had turned into a swamp. Might as well do whatever you want, or nothing at all. Might as well just stay right here in the green, rotting water, and wait. A certain kind of thing only happens in bad summer, a certain kind of choice tugs at possibility, wants to make itself known, the kind of choice that builds in its own clean-up work for the coming fall, when we return to ourselves, when we pull ourselves back together.
Things keep falling from the sky. Heatwaves follow heatwaves; temperatures scorch one city and then another; the air is a misery. We give ourselves outsize permission to complain, to blame the weather. The planet flirts with being unlivable. We all flirt with the disaster of the future, all strapped in together in a car driving toward a wall. Bad news arrives over and over. Friends get sick, are sick. There is nothing for me to do. Bad summer simmers and sends us all inside, lying useless as reptiles low on the couch under a nauseating wave of artificial cold air. The cats are restless and unhappy. Thomas gets a cold and then I get a cold. I am careless about eating things I know will make me feel terrible, lazy about going to the gym. I know how to take care of myself, how to set myself up to have less of a bad time; I simply can’t seem to convince myself to do it.
Everyone I know is trying, and everyone I know wants to give up. We try to do all kinds of things to help, we volunteer and donate money and make phone calls and stand in large crowds in public places, reciting chants, embarrassed by reciting chants in a crowd in a public place. I know that it doesn’t have to feel like it’s making a difference in order to make a difference; I know sometimes, often, doing something feels like doing nothing. But still it feels lately like the only action we can take is to wring our hands, that the only mode available is worry. Nothing feels like change and everything feels like the weather, like the kind of sleep that you grasp at on an already-sweaty morning, halfway out of the sheets and baking under the unrelenting window, sweating up the bed, stinking up the room.
Bad summer is empty-handed, an inability to get out from under the Fourth of July, its fireworks and the way they make the cats panic and make me panic, too, my neck twitching, trying to check my rearview mirror when I’m not even in a car. Bad summer makes you look for a circus to go see, makes you want somebody to pretend all of this is a party. Everybody tries to pretend everything is a party in bad summer. Very little is a party, or everything is a party and that’s why it’s all so bad. I hate how I set up my whole evening to watch each democratic primary debate, how I read recaps the next day as though it were a fictional TV show. I hate sitting in public spaces trying to identify a path to the exits and how I would negotiate the path with my body and Thomas’ larger body and the smaller but less mobile bodies of the 70 and 80 year old family friends whom I love so much, and what about the bodies of the people I don’t know well, the people I sometimes say hello to, the people whose names I can’t remember, the people who annoy me. I hate telling Thomas every day to be safe as though he is getting on a plane when he just goes to work. I hate the way living in America right now, in one more bad summer of our history, is like being on a plane, strapped in, unable to do anything about whatever might happen to us each next day, about whatever someone else’s choices will do to us.
Waiting for miracles is much the same thing as waiting for disasters. What probably matters is the small daily doing, the work that feels futile, the repeated kindnesses and grinding refusals to give up in the face of despair, even if right now everything just feels like a more self-righteous way of doing nothing. Soon it will be the end of August and back-to-school will be a shared emotion even if you aren’t going back to school, or have never once gone back to school at all. It’s possible everything will feel dynamic and white-knuckle-gripped again, forward-motion verb tenses churning. But while it’s hot out we wait for miracles and disasters; we hold our breath through the weather. At dusk, golden hour paints all the delivery bikes and cop cars on the walk home from the subway into something as surreal as a painting, the light of a heaven whose beauty reveals it to be false. Waiting for things to change is immoral, but often each next day feels like driving with the brake on. People walk their dogs and sit on their stoops; New York doesn’t really empty out in summer anymore. I walk home slowly, hoping by the time I get there that the air might feel clearer, that the weather might have broken, that it all might have finally arrived at the next thing.
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