I order a suicide, a delicious combination of every available fountain soda. I pay for it in cash and drink it in a fort constructed from towels and pool furniture. I dive ten feet deep, wipe the chlorine from my freckled cheeks, and triumphantly toss my sister the neon-colored, weighted ring. The sun evaporates the water from my skin as I lie resting, shielding my eyes from the sun with the back of my hand and knowing that for the next three months, I won’t carry a backpack or board a bus, and that in three months, I will begin again.
This May, I stood on the roof of the Empire Hotel, watched the sunset over New Jersey, and declared that this would be the summer of rooftops. “Can we please be on a different rooftop every weekend?” My friends replied with an enthusiastic “yes.” In nine hours, it will be September and I will have been on precisely one rooftop since that night in May. Here, during my first summer in New York City, even on a roof, above the city, the heat is unbearable. The sweat pools between my breasts and thighs and runs down my forehead and back. Twenty minutes outside means another shower, a fresh set of clothes, and far more effort than I care to exert more than once in a twenty-four hour period. This has become the summer I stopped wearing bras because I couldn't stand how they felt sticking to my skin. This has become the summer when I said fuck it, maximized my time indoors, and adjusted my goals.
This summer, I have aimed to stay cool and hopefully get a job and an apartment – grab some drinks with friends – maybe take a day trip to the beach – stand on a few rooftops – but, ultimately, what has differentiated this season from any other season is the incessant desire to stay cool because the heat is intolerable. The heat has made everything worse – the joblessness, the black bathroom mold, and the noise from the jackhammer pounding at the mortar between the bricks holding in my room.
I climb onto my father’s shoulders as he stands in the water. I balance for a moment and then let myself fall backwards, let the water splash and envelop me, and catch myself before I sink too deep. “Who wants a chipwich?” he always asks, and together, we each eat one before they melt and before his cholesterol rises too high for chipwiches.
Everyone is fleeing the city, taking weeks off work, relaxing, and enjoying somewhere else – Cape Cod, the Hamptons, Montreal. My inbox is flooded with advertisements for floppy hats and discount getaways. I rush to the dry cleaners before closing to keep my two-outfit rotation in stock – two pencil skirts, two sleeveless blouses, and two blazers. I receive a call just before five, asking me to come in the next morning. This will be my third interview. I scramble to find an alternative ensemble in my cramped wardrobe – cramped from squeezing the contents of four closets into one – and I find my summer hat – its floppy brim bent. I step back on the ninety-year-old, unfinished wood floors. I fall on the bed and pull a splinter out of my foot.
I see the images of summertime on the backs of magazines, in the photos expanding my news feed, and in the poolside memories of hot, Virginia summers with family and friends. This summer, I will not be scurrying across the sand before it scalds my feet nor escaping responsibilities because eight months ago, I chose to quit my job, move here, and start anew. At the time, my friends called me brave. I didn’t understand what they meant. I said goodbye to people I miss (most of whom have now also moved). I packed forty-nine boxes of books, clothes, kitchenware, et cetera (most of which now reside in my cousin’s basement upstate). I made a mental note to donate a lot of it once I arrived. I boarded the plane, just like any other trip, and two hours later, I had relocated. Three months, I thought. Three months, and I’d be in a new job, out of my friend’s apartment, and enjoying the city – enjoying the summer.
Job openings fill tab after tab in my internet browser. I open a new window and search for apartments in D.C., L.A., San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Providence – even home in Virginia. I keep my bedroom door closed so that if and when my roommates come home, they can’t see me. I close my eyes and imagine that I’m driving my old car with the sunroof open, blaring nineties rock, and approaching the beach, or I’m sitting on a diner stool and drinking Coca-Cola from a glass bottle somewhere quiet, somewhere like the paintings in the pocket-sized Norman Rockwell book my Grandpa bought me a decade or more before his death. When my eyes open, I’m still here. I curse the stifling subway air and piles of black garbage bags growing, just like the mold, out of the concrete and look at pictures online of Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Euphoric from the pool bar junk food I never find in my mother’s pantry, I walk past the tennis courts and across the tree trunk bridging the creek. I climb over the neighbor’s fence and finally arrive home. I shower away the sugar, chlorine, and sweat to make room for tomorrow’s. In the crisp air conditioning, next to my family, I cuddle in fleece pants, beneath an afghan - clean, secure, and cool.
When my boyfriend stormed out of the apartment after one of our many fights since the move, I called him crying, begging him to return. We compromised and met in the park. We sat on a Hudson-facing bench and avoided eye contact with the tens of people passing, jogging, and walking their dogs by us, and he held me as I cried through the shame of apologizing for my passive remarks and the shame of crying on a public park bench for the second time this summer. He offered me ice cream from the vendor one block south. I ordered a chipwich, and he paid for it in cash. The ice cream was frozen, pressing my teeth into my gums when I tried to bite into it. I held the sandwich between my palms to warm it and ate it one small bite at a time as it slowly melted. Maybe it was the temperature, maybe it was the brand, maybe it was the city, but it didn’t taste as good as I remembered.
Written by Virginia Mason
Photos by Sienna Brown