|Helena Fitzgerald||Jun 3, 2016|
I wasn’t supposed to be there. It was the hottest day of the year, the hottest day New York had seen in nearly thirty years, and I was trying to leave before he woke up. The door was stuck. In 2011, I was having a very bad year, and my very bad year had hit a record high when I got involved with someone with whom I should never have gotten involved, the kind of person whose apartment you have to sneak out of in the morning. It felt good, in the way a truly, miserably hot day feels good. Its awfulness made me vividly aware that I was a body in a world full of bodies, that I counted as a person like every other disaster of a person crowding into the space of the day. I was for so long so desperate for something to happen to me, for something to make me feel important, that I turned to crisis like a plant seeking the light, because at least in a crisis I knew something was actually happening.
Later that day the temperature would climb to 104 degrees, the hottest day since the era of the garbage strikes when my parents lived in the city and didn’t know each other. The heat wasn’t quite there yet, but I could feel it, expectant, clawing at the starting line. I couldn’t get the front door of his apartment open. The humidity had swollen the wood so that the door was stuck in the doorframe, trapping us in the room. He woke up and bleared toward the door, in his underwear, still drunk. I giggled nervously while he pushed and pulled at the locks. Some trapped bird beat its wings frantically inside my ribcage. I looked up to apologize and saw that he had gotten a butcher knife from the kitchen and was cutting a hole in the door. Methodically, if not neatly, he cut apart the door of his Brooklyn Heights apartment until there was enough room for a person to climb through. We were animals chewing off our limbs to get out of a cage. Objectively I knew that this was A Very Bad Solution, but the trapped thing in my chest calmed, slowed, and stopped. I was free, and the disaster inside this apartment was not my problem anymore. I climbed out through the hole in the door. He kissed me goodbye holding a butcher knife. I do not believe he got his security deposit back when he moved.
Summer in New York is rooted in bad choices and disasters. It takes place at the level of crisis, finds its default at the pitch of desperation. Fire trucks and ambulances come alive, freed by the heat into perfect clarity, screaming all day up and down the avenues. Fire trucks in New York are like cicadas in other places, the humming noise under the day that makes up the fabric of the place. There are more fire trucks in the summer because everything here is poorly built and ill-conceived, and in hot weather the whole badly constructed city is a fire hazard. Extreme weather is a reminder of how tenuous this city is, how unconsidered. The places I love best are for the most part places that were not meant to exist, accidents grown by a series of stupid bets into substance and grandeur, fundamentally impermanent while making monuments to permanence. New York was supposed to be a harbor, a convenience for the East India Trading Company, a sloppy collection of buildings where sailors could spend a night getting drunk and getting laid and then could leave. This muddy rock jutting out of farmland into a swamp instead decided it wanted to be the center of the world. We insist on ourselves, on what we build, on what we love, not because it is tenable, or made to last, but because it is what’s there, the thing to which we have taught ourselves to return. If you keep going back to a place enough times, eventually that place becomes important whether or not it has the capacity for importance. Cities, like relationships, happen not because you plan them but because someone keeps going back to the same place night after night, and looks up and realizes they’ve built something. A bar in a muddy harbor becomes a home and a home becomes a world.
But this means that in the summer, nothing works. New York, like many other grand cities, is an accident of stubbornness and love, rather than a place built to last, and when the heat starts doing daredevil pranks up around 100, you notice it. All these buildings shoved into not enough space crowd and bleed into each other, collapsible as makeshift rooms. All the small spaces accumulate dirt and nothing circulates air. Our methods of dealing with garbage are horrific and do not work and invite rats as though making rats welcome had been the ultimate goal. There isn’t enough room on the streets for so many people. The subway is a sentence that cannot stop revising itself and has lost the narrative; the functionality of the subway varies wildly not just from line to line but from single train to single train, these untrustworthy metal snakes purring through the long underground tunnels that hollow out the city like a great collapsible beehive. All the amenities blink and stutter and fail; water never quite runs cold and on the hottest days the power threatens to shut off. Fuses blow easily and take with them the God-like mercy of the air conditioners. Nothing can make the smells of piss and shit stay confined to the private sewers where they’re supposed to go, but instead the air reeks of humanity’s rock-bottom truths, that we all about to dissolve into pools of foul-smelling liquid at any moment.
Perversely, summer is when everyone is sexiest. Summer in New York is not just about sex, but made of sex, its form and content fused. Everyone’s body, no matter the degree of one’s loathing for it, no matter its current state of revision or preparedness, looks like sex. In summer all bodies are bodies, molting out of their functions and excuses and disguises. Only skin that’s sweating really looks like skin, touchable and consequent, like smell made visible. It is as difficult not to touch everyone you see as it is not to run your hands over the fresh produce rotting vividly in the long rows in front of Fairway. It’s easier to make bad choices in summer, or to make no choices at all and not think of words like good and bad, not think of the consequences that will return like the school year when it gets cold enough to go inside and talk to each other in September. The air conditioners break and we stay out later and have one more drink, pouring the alcohol immediately back out our skin, standing at a bar or at a party in the heat when we are all blaring vacancy signs. Who we are when we’re sweaty is who we are underneath ourselves all the time anyway, a wet oozing want that puddles across the daytime from one desperation to the next, giving up on the hopes of convincing one another that we do not have a body, that at the edges we do not all smell like death. In summer in New York we reveal ourselves to be walking carcasses; summer in New York is about sex.
We go home with someone and when we pull apart our skin peels off their skin like tape. We take trains to far flung parts of the city, past unfamiliar elevated stations where the sky could be anywhere, where houses in rows offer up yards like pairs of outstretched hands, green places that seem to know secrets about family. The map widens. We stay in someone’s apartment because the air conditioner is on, blasting us into an oblivion of white noise, and every sufficiently air-conditioned room becomes an expensive hotel. In the summer in my early twenties I used to stay out in dive bars – one particular dive bar, really, and one particular group of lowlifes whom I loved with my whole sweating heart – until after the bar was supposed to close, trying to get to the part of the morning when the sky first got light, when the heat would break and for maybe forty-five minutes of the day the air was kind and wanted us never to have to worry about anything. The bar where that summer took place was far out enough into Brooklyn that when there was a breeze I could smell the ocean. My best friend and I stood on the elevated subway platform and raised our bedraggled faces up to the breeze, convinced that each next day was the only thing that was ever going to happen. By the time I got back to my neighborhood, the joggers would be out and the temperatures would have started again. Last year, when Brazenhead closed, after the last night—or what we thought was the last night, there were so many last nights over and over again – Thomas and I walked home through the Upper East Side to the edge of the park while the sun rose. It felt like time travel, and I was barely out of college again, staying up all night to get to the cool breeze. Nothing existed but how good we felt at this moment, still awake and holding hands, a soft adrenaline that waited for a crash buzzing through our limbs. Bakeries were taking fresh bagels out of the oven and the morning was a bargain against the rest of the day.
My mom talks about the sanitation strikes in the 1970s – how in the middle of the summer garbage piled up graceless all through the buzzing day, its stinking piles bordering the streets like hedges in front of the homes of the rich, and the whole world was a sewer. She tells stories about taking baths in a tub full of ice cubes to cool down. Summer is when the seams show, and when every year in this filthy place collapses back onto the summers that came before. Remembering the worst parts of ourselves is a way to remember our history, to allow it the influence and warnings it deserves.
Whenever it gets hot again every year I think of that nauseous morning, the green carpeted hallway appearing through the hole in the door like an eye blinking open. A heatwave is a horrorshow but it’s also a party. Everyone in the city is for a few months stuck in the same overcrowded house party together, falling down on one another, good looks and good manners collapsing into the animal exuberance of skin. I stayed in that relationship for a year, but the whole thing was that morning, the trapped room and the knife cutting through the stuck door. Hot weather brings us back to our ugliest selves, the place where our bodies are sewer-drains, reeking secrets into daylight. Summer is about freedom, the last day of school bursting out of the classroom into the unscheduled months, but there is a freedom, too, in knowing the longings and abilities in oneself that rise like the smell of garbage piled up on a hot day. Our bodies sweat down to their barest truths. We all smell bad and we can stay outside as late as we want, in a made-up, collapsing city, lulled by the sound of the fire trucks and waiting for the hour of mercy at the bottom of the morning.